Sustainable theater company aims for zero-waste productions

Ensemble says move makes artistic and economic sense

November 11, 2011

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A few years ago, a Chicago theater company got disgusted with how much waste the theater industry creates – everything from discarded set pieces to toxic paints. So, now it’s working on a zero-waste model, one it hopes will also create a different relationship with its audience.

When the audience arrives, they see the cast list, of course. But they also get info on Filament Theatre Ensemble's eco bona fides. Like, how 99 percent of the set is made from reclaimed or locally grown wood, costumes are reused or made of recycled materials, and, instead of a paper ticket, each audience member gets a thin slice of tree branch and is asked to put it in one of four glass jars.

DIRECTOR: Hi, folks, if you just put your ticket in the jar that best describes how you got here today.

PATRON: Is a cab a car?

DIRECTOR: Rode in a car, yeah. Thanks.

PATRON: I biked.

The branches are a cheap — and reusable — way to collect data on how the audience gets to the show. Filament Theatre may eventually offer discounts or free drinks to people who don’t drive. They're even talking about figuring out ways to offset the carbon use of theater-goers who do drive.

Omen Sade is Filament Theatre’s associate art director. He says this is all just one part of the theater’s environmental commitment.

SADE: I have always been a little bit appalled at both the materials used and also the culture of building a set that is made out of a lot of processed, toxic chemicals and then after the show is done, it’s ripped up and thrown away.

Sade says that’s not true of every theater company: Many do store sets and eventually reuse them.

Sade: It’s more that it’s a part of the culture of theater in general, that there’s not the thought of another way of doing it.

RITCHEY:  We know because of the Greeks that plays can be written and performed and have a very, very long life, and they don’t need all the bells and whistles and the electricity and the toxic paint.

Julie Ritchey is the managing artistic director. She says the ensemble hopes to create a model other companies can use. She says reusing sets and materials isn't just an environmental tactic -- it's cheaper, and that's important in a tough economy when arts funding is drying up.

Ritchey says the company’s commitment to sustainability moves beyond ecology and the economy; they’re trying to build a sustaining tie to the community, too.

This past summer Filament did a play in a vacant storefront in Chicago’s Portage Park neighborhood. Regular people loaned Filament tables for the box office, buckets to clean, even lighting, props and jewelry. They also painted, mopped, and fed the actors. Everybody who helped got in free, and later, they just brought the donated items back home.

Ritchey: We’re in an extremely fortunate position that we’ve never had a lot of money so we're able to take big risks. We’re at the very beginning of our life as a company, and we’re not dealing with an 80-year history and billions of dollars. So we’re able to make these huge, huge, huge changes and let that really be the foundation that everything comes out of.

All of these sustainability considerations happen before the production. But the environmental theme also comes out in the current show called, From the Circle: Remembering the Earth Through Folktales.

Four actors stand under a canopy, held up by tree branches. They tell folk tales about the creation, destruction and eventual rebirth of the world. The audience sits around them in a circle, so you feel like you’re listening to a story around a campfire.

PLAY DIALOGUE: And now there is life, new life, life everywhere ...

An actor who came to see the show, Alex Levin, says there’s a lot of waste in theater.

LEVIN: To be honest, I hadn’t really thought about it too much, which is why I was interested when I read some of the stuff here.

This is the kind of awareness Omen Sade says Filament hopes to build.

SADE: The thing that we’re not interested in is what’s called agitprop theater, which is theater in which an actor comes on stage and says to the audience this is what you’re doing wrong and this is how you need to be doing it better.

Sade says finger-wagging theater is dull, and nobody likes it. For his money, it’s better to entertain people and invite their help with environmental goals, than it is to lecture them.

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